Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brits Burn White House TODAY!

Yes, the British did burn the White House on this day (August 24) in 1814...just thought I'd throw in a screeching headline because they are all the rage as the media cover big events.  What was going on back in 1814? Why were the British so mad? Probably they were retaliating for the U.S. burning public buildings in York (Toronto) Canada...all part of the War of 1812.

The soldiers added insult to injury by eating the food set out on the dining room table and sarcastically drank to "Jemmy's health" with his fine wines in crystal glasses...then burned the house, capitol, and assorted other official buildings.

It was a bitter day in U.S. history after several humiliating defeats in the war. President Madison was not at home to great his unwelcome guests but was on horseback in the field with his army. He was the last Commander in Chief to actually take part in a battle. It was all the more surprising because of his frail physique.

Of course, Madison is not known for his military prowess. He has no eponymously named buildings in Washington, his face does not stare out from Mt. Rushmore, nor does he grace any money. But we should be thinking about James Madison today, on the anniversary of the burning of his official residence because of his pivotal role in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are his monument.

What would Madison make of the current roiling debates about building an Islamic Center in New York City? There are several clues -- more than that, well established facts. Here's a brief entry from Wikipedia that summarizes those facts.

As a young lawyer, Madison defended Baptist preachers arrested for preaching without a license from the established Anglican Church. In addition, he worked with the preacher Elijah Craig on constitutional guarantees for religious liberty in Virginia.[10] Working on such cases helped form his ideas about religious freedom. Madison served in the Virginia state legislature (1776–79) and became known as a protégé of Thomas Jefferson. He attained prominence in Virginia politics, helping to draft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It disestablished the Church of England and disclaimed any power of state compulsion in religious matters. He excluded Patrick Henry's plan to compel citizens to pay for a congregation of their own choice.

Madison's cousin, the Right Reverend James Madison (1749–1812), became president of the College of William & Mary in 1777. Working closely with Madison and Jefferson, Bishop Madison helped lead the College through the difficult changes involving separation from both Great Britain and the Church of England.

Madison wrote widely about the issue of freedom of conscience and religion. Unlike Jefferson and Franklin for example, he was a religious person and a member of the Episcopal faith. During the fight to ratify the new Constitution, many opponents demanded the addition of a bill of rights. Madison, at first opposed such a list as both unnecessary and inadequate but was eventually convinced that it was important to gain support for the Constitution. He digested the hundreds of proposed amendments down to a manageable few and shepherded them through the first Congress to become the first 10 amendments,  the Bill of Rights. He crafted the first amendment based on the Virginia statute (written by Thomas Jefferson) that he got through the Virginia legislature.

Madison paid a price for opposing the powerful Henry on the religious freedom issue and winning the Constitution ratification debate in Virginia. Henry blocked his appointment as a Senator and supported powerful candidates against him in his congressional district. Madison prevailed.

As he did with the Baptists and other so called dissenting faiths in Virginia, he stood for absolute freedom of religion. When he helped dismantle the official religion of Virginia (his own Episcopal Church) he made it clear what the original intent of the First Amendment was.

The demagoguery that has replaced debate of the issue of the Sufi mosque would have disturbed Madison greatly. The religious hatred, intolerance, and lies that have circulated and not been refuted by so-called responsible politicians would have made him physically ill. There is no way of knowing what position Madison would have taken on the location of the center. But we do know what he said on the freedom to practice ones religion and the absolute separation of church and state.

196 years ago, our capitol was in flames and our president was leading an army to defend our country and the Constitution and Bill of Rights he helped author. I think Jemmy's advice to those who support and oppose the building of the mosque might have been the following:
  • read your history -- including the Constitution and Bill of Rights
  • dial back the rhetoric and emotion -- discussion and dialogue work where demagoguery doesn't
  • remember why we were fighting 200 years ago...
The world is watching -- will we actually uphold the separation of church and state, the freedom of religion and the freedom to assemble, and the great promise of pursuing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, President, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Author: Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers   http://www.conventionalwisdomcenter.com/